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Software Review: Xara Designer Pro X11

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

pro11_splashXara Designer Pro X11 is an all-in-one design tool that handles bit maps, vector illustration, photo editing, page layout, and website design/publishing. It combines the features found in Xara’s stand-alone products — Xara Web Designer 11 Premium, Xara Page & Layout Designer 11, and Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 11 – into one package. Xara, founded in 1981, one of the oldest independent software developers in the U.K., became part of Magix AG in 2007.

I installed Designer Pro X11 and compared it to the competition in terms of user experience, features, and cost.

Installation

The download was fast and the installation offered a custom mode which allowed you to choose a destination for the program. Whenever possible, I install my programs on a separate physical hard drive from the operating system to maximize performance. This is supported. There is an option to check required versus available disk space before committing. Creating a desktop shortcut is optional. The installer is set to install Simpliclean, a junk data remover, but does give you the option to reject this. I did. You should never install software you didn’t ask for. Once all the questions were answered, the installation completed in less than a minute.

After registration, the software takes you to the Welcome to the Xara Community screen which points you to a wide range of leaning, example, resource and support. The amount and quality of the help is impressive. I checked out the YouTube channel which has close to 300 videos available arranged around the products and their features. Xara also maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and their own website.

User Experience

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Many complex functions for photography and web design are accomplished with a single click

One major difference between Xara and most graphics software, I’ve used is a methodology for applying changes to objects they call “Direct Action Tools.” For instance, if you want to create a custom color to apply to an object in the workspace, you select it. Then you open the color picker and drag across the pallet to find the color you want. There is no “preview check box.” The color is applied as you go. Similarly, there are no “Apply” or “Cancel” buttons. When you do it, it’s a fait accompli. If you don’t like the result, you can click the “Undo” button.

Depending on how used to using other software you are, this could take some getting used to. It will, however, save you a lot of clicks and may save time in the long run.

Another difference in the interface is using right and left clicks to create alternative actions. With an object selected, if you left click on a color swatch, it sets the fill color. If you right click it sets the line color.

Features

I opened both Xara Designer Pro X11 and Photoshop. Xara loaded in a third of the time. I then opened the same photo in both programs. As one might expect, the range of options in Photoshop were much deeper and offered more fine tuning options. The controls I was looking for were sometimes harder to find in Xara, but that is understandable given its one-product-does-everything purpose. There is certainly an advantage, however, to having multiple types of documents, such as a photo, a webpage, a document, and an animation open at once in one interface. Using Adobe, you would need four open programs to manage this.

By default, Xara reopens the last file you were working on. Again, this could be a time saver.

Demonstrations of the features of the software are provided by Xara in an article called First Look. Not only is the web posting about Xara Designer Pro X11, it is created with its web tools. The page is very interactive, showing you new features and letting you play with them, not just telling you about them.

The web design features are optimized for creating modern, flexible interfaces, as this example site demonstrates.

A photo manipulation feature I particularly liked, because I run into this a lot, involves preparing photos for display online. For example, a photo may not be wide enough for the requirements of a particular website. Most software will allow you to stretch the photo to make it wider, but then you have two new problems. If you stretched it in only one direction, you have distortion. If you locked the proportions of the photo, it might then be too tall and you’d need to crop it, perhaps ruining the composition. Xara allows you to protect certain areas of the photo, and then stretch the rest without distorting the protected area. I could do this in Photoshop, but it would take many more steps and a lot more time.

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In this view a web developer can see both a monitor and cell phone version of the same page

Speed is important in preparing graphics for online use and this is Xara’s strongpoint. Even though I own all of Adobe’s current software, I still use Adobe Fireworks CS6 (which Adobe stopped updating in 2012) to prepare most online photos, because I can do it rapidly, with keyboard shortcuts and almost without thinking. Xara also has this kind of ease-of-use and if Fireworks ever stops working for me, Xara will be first in line as a replacement.

In the text and page layout areas, new or improved features are not as exciting. Text highlighting, styles, and automatic hyphenating are things I’ve taken for granted in other software for years.

In the collaborative sphere and working with others online, Xara lags behind Adobe. It does support saving to the cloud, and if you are not supporting client websites or working with a geographically dispersed team, this may not be an issue for you.

Cost

Xara Designer Pro X11 costs $299. An upgrade to the current version is $99.

Its functionality is similar to Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, and Muse. A subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud which would include these applications, and everything else Adobe makes, costs $49.99 per month. That’s twice as much, but you get more, and updates are delivered all year long.

Alternatively, Adobe offers a photographer’s option that includes only Photoshop, Lightroom, and the related online and mobile tools. This costs only $9.99 per month, but you would not get the vector editing, publishing, or web design options that Xara offers. Xara also comes with a free website.

Which to Choose

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Xara Designer Pro helps you create publications from invitations to books

Ultimately, the decision whether Xara Designer Pro is a good choice for you depends on your objectives, work environment, and budget. It provides modern, web oriented tools in a fast loading, intuitive interface with lots of help, examples, and templates. If, for instance, you were preparing technical documentation, you could easily jump from your document to your website to your photo collection with one click. If you are a graphic designer with a wide variety of clients, it is a good choice. If you are more specialized, or work with a larger team, Adobe might be a better option.

To try it for yourself, you can download a trial copy of Xara Designer Pro here.

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